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From the NS archive: The unity of Korea

29 July 1950: An assessment of the motivations and provocations of North and South Korea – and their Cold War sponsors – as the Korean War broke out.

With the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided in two along the 38th parallel. The northern zone was administered by the Soviet Union, the southern zone by the US. The split country – both geographically and ideologically – became a Cold War testing ground, a fact that became entrenched in 1948 when the two zones became sovereign states. Seventy years ago, on 25 June 1950, North Korean forces backed by the USSR and China crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. This article looks at the motivations of both sides and their sponsors, as well as the UN’s response. The piece accuses the combatants variously of aggression, provocation, bad faith, malign propaganda and deceit, and sees the only way out of the impasse and a wider conflagration being a resolution accepted by all the many interested parties.

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Korea is not two countries divided by the 38th parallel, but one country about the size of Britain. It contains about 30 million people, some of whom live in modern brick-built towns and most of whom are peasants mainly concerned with getting rid of landlords. Almost all of them have a strong sense of national unity. In a long and bloodthirsty past of conquest and resistance, Koreans have developed, even more than most people, a distaste for foreign occupation.

We must grasp the central fact that the parallel was a temporary occupation device; that Koreans are primarily interested, like the Chinese, in national unity and social change; and that this involves throwing out foreigners and the old ruling class the foreigners support and substituting a government of their own people. Unless that is clear in our minds, we shall not understand the difficulties of the Korean situation or know how to achieve the settlement to which, as members of the United Nations (UN), we are pledged.

The situation is not as simple as either Mr Truman or the communists would like us to think. Mr Truman tells us that an act of “raw, unprovoked aggression” was committed against the free people of South by the communists of North Korea, and that the UN, after hearing evidence of this, decided to take sanctions against the aggressor and put the US in charge of them. The communists precisely reverse all these allegations. Their case in this country is stated plausibly but disingenuously by Mr D N Pritt, KC, in a pamphlet entitled Light on Korea. According to him, the People’s Democracy of North Korea was invaded by American-sponsored forces from the South when they were in the midst of peaceful negotiations designed to unify the country. In a Security Council deprived of all legality by the absence of the USSR and communist China, the United States, upon which most of the remaining members of the Security Council were dependent, was able to obtain a bogus mandate to support her Korean satellite in its aggressive activities.

This case is immediately destroyed by one simple but decisive fact. Powerful Northern forces have indisputably invaded South Korea in a fully mounted offensive. Such an offensive, involving the use of at least 400 Soviet-built tanks, could not be improvised. Clearly the act of military aggression did not come from the South, and, by pretending that it did, Mr Pritt has helped newspapers and politicians to neglect the formidable array of facts which show that this premeditated Northern aggression was not “unprovoked”.

Some light is thrown on the events preceding the invasion by the fact that, according to the official UN reports, some 18,000 people have been killed in frontier and guerilla fighting during the past two years in Korea. In short, no stable conditions have existed; something like a civil war has been continuous. Secondly, fierce propaganda campaigns, accompanied by threats of invasion, have come from the South as well as the North. Mr Synghman Rhee went so far on one occasion as to declare that he could capture the Northern capital, Pyongyang in three days, and that he was only prevented from doing so by the Americans who said he was not ready for the enterprise. Such ridiculous sabre-rattling provides Mr Pritt with ample evidence of the aggressive ambitions of the South. To this he can fairly add that when Mr Trygve Lie first cabled to Korea for information about the reported invasion, the UN Commission on Korea (Uncok) did not claim itself to have any first-hand evidence, but replied that a Northern invasion was reported by Synghman Rhee and that it would “communicate more fully considered recommendations later”. This cautious reply was regarded by the US as sufficient reason for brushing aside the Yugoslav proposal that a representative of North Korea should be heard by the Security Council, and for itself having recourse to arms even before the Security Council had passed the resolution authorising intervention. By including, without any colour of legality, a decision to prevent the actual government of China taking over its own territory of Formosa, the United States seriously compromised its claim to be acting in a police capacity for Uno.

The 38th parallel has never been a genuine frontier. Neither North nor South Korea ever acknowledged the right of the other to exist, nor was the South ever recognised by the communist world or Northern Korea by the Western powers. In the South, a period of American military government slowly gave way to an administration representing the landlords, directed by American advisers and upheld by ECA funds which totalled 400 million dollars. The ECA advisers have struggled to introduce land reform but the government was largely successful in frustrating it. In the North, on the other hand, the Russian armies, while maintaining a large military mission, at the very outset of their occupation gave power to People’s Committees run by Korean communists already prominent in the Resistance Movement against Japan. Landlords were expropriated, and the land distributed to the farmers. By the beginning of 1946, political opposition had already been broken, and a People’s Republic along familiar communist lines been created by the Red Army co-operating with Korean communists. In 1947, an American expert reported that, in the North, “a regimented and orderly political regime was being established upon the ruins of Japanese administration, whereas in South Korea a chaotic but free political system was slowly taking shape under trying circumstances”.

During the next two years, the contrast became even more pronounced. In the first nine months of 1949, South Korea’s imports, according to the US Department of Commerce, actually exceeded her exports by ten to one. This was due not only to the fact that Korea’s main industries lay in the North, which had hitherto lived largely on foodstuffs from the South, but also to the extreme inefficiency and corruption of the Synghman Rhee administration. The 1950-51 Budget for South Korea allocated 53 per cent to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls both the police and defence; the Budget in the North for the same period allocated 61.4 per cent for economic rehabilitation and social and cultural activities. The only possible deduction for any Asiatic observer was that, while the South was a dollar dependency, the North, whatever its defects, stood for a new social order, for unity and “Korea for the Koreans”.

The exact events of the spring and the early summer of 1950 have not yet been the subject of any authoritative inquiry. We can, however, gather from the Uncok reports (which have not been made accessible to the British public) numerous revealing facts about the intensified phase of Northern propaganda that preceded the invasion of 25 June. On 7 June, for instance, the Pyongyang radio broadcast an appeal by the Democratic Front for the Union of the Fatherland. It urged that Koreans, North and South of the 38th parallel, should together set up a legislative body. This, it proposed, should be convoked at Seoul on 15 August, after a joint consultative council had worked out the conditions for peaceful unification. It added that everyone might participate except such “traitors” as Synghman Rhee and others specified, but that “the UN Commission should not be permitted to interfere in the task of unification”. The Commission reported to the Security Council that, in spite of these objectionable political conditions, this appeal represented “an ostensible change in the North’s previous attitude”, and that it had sent its own representative across the parallel on June 10 to see the text of the proposals. He was to inform the three Northern representatives, who were bringing to the South the text of the Pyongyang Resolution that the Commission itself favoured the peaceful unification of the country – a possibility brought nearer, it may have seemed, by Synghman Rhee’s loss, to the “Independents” elected on 1 June, of his Assembly majority. The Commission adds that when, the next day, the three representatives of the Nordi arrived in the South carrying copies of the resolution for the main parties and personalities, they were “immediately placed under detention by the Southern authorities, who have since tried to induce them to switch sides by showing them the facts in the South”. The result of this incident was an intensified radio battle between North and South, in the middle of which Mr John Foster Dulles arrived in Seoul in time to assure the South Koreans of help in case of trouble.

When the invasion began on 25 June, it was clear that extensive military preparations had preceded it, and the UN Commission concluded, probably correctly, that the propaganda campaign bad been no more than a “screen”. In any case, it seems likely that unification had been planned for 25 June by invasion, if propaganda and pressure failed, and that it was hoped that the whole of South Korea would be over-run before the United States was ready to take action. This does not affect the question whether the communists decided to bring matters to a head in the summer of 1950 (although, as American correspondents have pointed out, a more patient policy might have achieved the same end without violence) because they were anxious to counter American plans for establishing permanent bases on the Asiatic mainland in Indo-China and Siam, and, on the periphery, in Japan and Formosa.

We have said enough to show that a full and honest publication of documents would reveal a very different state of affairs from that commonly assumed on either side of the Iron Curtain. For that reason neither side may be anxious for such publication. It seems likely that the nature of the regime in South Korea and the degree of provocation it gave would annoy one side, while proof that the actual aggression began from the North would annoy the other. We should also see the whole question of Korea in its setting of the Cold War and as part of the struggle for power in the Pacific. One fact would certainly be established. Clearly Mr Lippmann is right in pointing out in the Herald-Tribune that it is as impossible as it is undesirable to re-establish a Southern Korean regime in anything like its old form. He sees the way out in a UN settlement for the whole of Korea. That means a settlement accepted by China and Russia as well as the West. Mr Nehru’s special contribution has been to compel people to see that “victory” in Korea involves recognition of the actual government of China and reconstitution of the Security Council.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)